Oklahoma State Board of Education agrees to provide guidelines, not requirements for districts during COVID-19 pandemic

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Education officials spent hours on Thursday morning discussing protocols that need to be put in place for schools during the global pandemic.

On Thursday morning, the Oklahoma State Board of Education voted to approve a COVID-19 alert system that would create certain health alert levels per county. Based on the levels, school districts across the state would be issued guidelines and protocols in order to protect students and staff from the virus.

The ‘Return to Learn Oklahoma School Safety Protocols’ plan uses Oklahoma’s COVID-19 cases to provide minimum recommendations to schools but districts may impose additional restrictions as they see fit. It includes recommendations for instruction, health protocols, masks, visitors, and activities.

The system breaks the information into the following categories:

  • Green Level: <1.43 cases per 100,000 cases in the county
  • Yellow Level: 1.43- 14.39 cases per 100,000 cases in the county
  • Orange Level 1: 14.39 -25 cases per 100,000 cases in the county
  • Orange Level 2: 25-50 cases per 100,000 cases in the county
  • Red Level: >50 cases per 100,000 cases in the county.

Under the plan, the following recommendations would be offered regarding each category:

Green Level

Under the green level, in-person instruction would be recommended for school districts. Even though the number of COVID-19 cases are low in this category, masks are strongly recommended for staff and students.

Also, officials recommend that schools should limit visitors. At this point, activities would be allowed to continue with caution.

Yellow Level

Under the yellow level, schools are still expected to offer in-person instruction, but masks would be strongly recommended for teachers, staff, and students between the fourth and 12th grade. Also, masks would be strongly recommended for PreK through third graders in common areas, but not in class.

In the yellow level, visitors are strongly recommended to be limited. Regarding activities, this level recommends limiting gatherings, assemblies, and events.

Orange Level 1:

Under orange level 1, schools are recommended to use alternative schedules in order to allow for greater social distancing or implement distance learning. In-person learning should continue for special education students and others who are unable to be served by distance learning. Personnel continues working on campus as assigned.

In this category, masks are strongly recommended for students, teachers, and staff with exceptions for meals, naptime, recess, and PE if distancing is possible or if a mask is unsafe.

Visitors are still strongly recommended to be limited, and buildings cannot be used for extracurricular activities where social distancing is not possible.

Orange Level 2:

Under orange level 2, distance learning is strongly recommended for schools in the area for most students. In-person learning should continue for special education students and others who are unable to be served by distance learning. School personnel should continue to work on campus as assigned.

Masks are strongly recommended for all students, staff, and teachers.

Visitors are strongly recommended to be restricted, and buildings should not be used for extracurricular activities or public gatherings.

Red Level:

Under the red level, schools are strongly recommended to use distance learning for most students. In-person learning should continue for special education students and others who are unable to be served by distance learning. School personnel should continue working on campus as assigned.

Masks are strongly recommended for all students, staff, and teachers.

Visitors are strongly recommended to be restricted, and buildings should not be used for activities.

Initially, the protocols included requirements for masks and distance learning in certain situations.

Some board members wanted the alert system to simply be a recommendation, and not a requirement for school districts. Board members stressed concern about taking away local control from districts.

“This is about allowing our democracy to be at work. It really comes down to the heart of; it’s about bottom up not top down. The more I hear us talk on this call, we’re talking about top down and that’s not what Oklahoma and this nation is all about. I want to be able to refocus that. It’s about trusting our local boards to do what they’re intended to do,” said Estela Hernandez.

Officials were also concerned about a possible delay in numbers, and confusion for local school boards when the numbers can change dramatically day-by-day.

Other board members said it was important for the board to provide specific requirements for schools moving forward.

“My allegiance and pledge was to operate in the best interest of the health, safety, and quality educational opportunities for children. And I would believe that the state board would not exist at this level if there was never a need for oversight of local control. I, too, trust our superintendents and our local board leaders. I also know that they are not health experts who have ever navigated the waters of a pandemic that we’re in right now,” said Carlisha Bradley.

Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister says it is important to note that community spread is happening and steps need to be taken now to prevent COVID-19 cases from spreading in schools.

“We can’t wait to act until it is too late,” Hofmeister said.

Hofmeister said that if community spread occurs in a school, it could be disastrous for families. Following CDC guidelines would mean that students would have to be quarantined at home, which would also mean that a family member would have to stay home and take care of each child.

She stressed that since the virus is so new, there are many long-term health effects that are not known at this time.

However, she says it is their duty to do everything they can to protect students, families, and school personnel.

“This is a time for leadership,” she said.

Following several hours of tense discussion, the board voted 4-3 in favor of making the protocols guidelines rather than requirements.

“Today’s vote is very disappointing and one that likely will stoke more concerns for teachers, parents and families with a new school year only weeks away. We all realize how important it is for schools to reopen. But we are in the midst of a global pandemic with COVID-19 cases sharply rising in our state. I believe it entirely appropriate that the State Board establish a floor of recommended and required protocols to ensure a safer environment for all in the school community – teachers, staff and students. Now that the board has made its decision, we strongly urge districts across the state to do the right thing and demonstrate the ‘Oklahoma Standard’ by masking up and following social distancing guidelines. In the meantime, the Oklahoma State Department of Education will continue working to secure the PPE our schools need.” 

Superintendent Joy Hofmeister

Following the vote, the Oklahoma Education Association said it was also disappointed in the move.

“We appreciate State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister proposing a plan to make school safer for students and staff. Sadly, four state board members couldn’t find the courage to protect our communities.

This is not a board standing up for local control. It is a governor-appointed board hiding behind those words to escape their responsibilities to the children of Oklahoma. If our elected leaders do not take their obligations to protect them seriously, our kids are the ones who will suffer — along with our colleagues, our families, and our fellow Oklahomans.

Our districts need strong leadership, but they didn’t find it at the State Board meeting today.”

OEA President Alicia Priest

Right now, Hofmeister says that most communities across the state are in the yellow category. So far, there are no communities listed in the red category.

The board will revisit the alert plan during its September meeting to determine if changes should be made.

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